Thursday, 12 February 2009

Good Writing

What is Good Writing?

Rubrics and Good Writing

One of my favorite conversation topics is always looking at how school has changed from when I went through.

When I was going through school, I often felt that my writing assignments were judged arbitrarily. Teachers would give you a B with little or no explanation. I still believe that content was relatively unimportant. Form was dominant. Lots of metaphors. Using a Thesaurus. Style over substance. And style was not well defined.

Then almost a miracle happened in college. I had an English professor - horrible of me that I've forgot his name - but he had the most wonderful approach. He had various writing style requirements that slowly added up over the course of the semester. Your first assignment only needed to meet the first requirement. Second assignment had to meet requirements 1 & 2. It was clear. And best of all, his biggest mantra was to stop using extra words that were not required. Shorter was better. Extra words were bad. To this day, I thank him.

The good news these days for my kids is that there is often a rubric (set of evaluation criteria) that are used to grade their writing. There are also some automated systems that students can submit their writing to that grades it based on various criteria. However, I've sometimes been pressed into service trying to up the automated grade only to find that my writing brings down the score. Still, there's a push to better define good writing. And much of the rubrics follow what that great English professor used.

Missing Element in Definition of Good Writing

While I applaud this move, I think that there's something vitally important missing in education. It's also a skill that most all of us who have gone through the education system need to work on.

What led me to talk about this was a recent conversation and a post that discusses the need that I've cited before that we need to write for skimming. In the case of that post the focus was on writing ad agency blog copy. It cites an old post by Jakob Nielsen:
How do users read on the web? They don't.

In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent ... scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.
This is far lower than the numbers that my blog readers told me. But my claim is that this isn't only on the web. It's emails. It's memos. Heck it's all the writing that I do these days.

No one has time to read details. We all skim dive skim. As writers we have to adopt practices for writing for skimming. Jakob Nielsen provides the following advice for scannable text:

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
There are quite a few other suggestions in the post Write for Skimming.

Good Writing Redefined

My kids are still learning the old 5 paragraph paper with intro, 3 body paragraphs, and conclusion. They are not being taught the necessity of:
  • What This Is - What is needed from the reader having read this email. Oh, this needs to be in the title or the first sentence.
  • Brevity
  • Skimming support
  • Sign posts
  • Use the same word repeatedly if you mean the same thing
  • Capitalize when a word or phrase means something specific - like a lawyer - This is called Title Case - and I just used it on the phrase Title Case. It means that Title Case refers to something specific and is not just a couple random words thrown together.
I know that I often fail at this, but we need to at least be aware of these new elements of what makes something good writing.

Can you help out here? I bet there are some fantastic resources that define good writing much better than I can. What could I look to as my rubric? What should I hand to a new employee fresh from college? Or maybe even harder a 55 year old employee who wonders why people only read the first sentence of their email (me included)?

Side Notes

One ironic note is to take a look at the page for the inverted pyramid style by Nielsen. I know that I shouldn't cast stones given all of my failings on good writing. But I would claim that it violates quite a few of what Jakob is telling us is important.

I wonder what the impact of IM and txting will have on writing. The good news is that it emphasizes brevity.

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